Cowboy Arts & Gear Museum
January – February 2019
The culture and heritage of the American buckaroo takes center stage.
BY MEGG MUELLER
PHOTOS BY LAURA PETERSEN
HISTORICAL PHOTOS COURTESY COWBOY ARTS & GEAR MUSEUM
The image of a cowboy is synonymous with the west. Of course there were cowboys around the world long before the Wild West was settled, but if you mention cowboys, it’s the west that springs to mind. Romantic images of hardscrabble men (and yes, some women) who lived on the land, rode majestic horses, drove cattle across landscapes covered with brush, and camped beneath endless starlit skies…that’s a cowboy.
The culture of the cowboy is still alive in rural Nevada, where it’s not romantic fantasy but a life lived daily by many men and women. Nevada has always celebrated and honored their contributions and the new Cowboy Arts & Gear Museum in Elko is the latest venue to pay homage.
The museum is not only home to some of the finest saddles and silver work ever created, it’s housed in the actual shop of one of the most famous saddle makers ever, G.S. Garcia.
MUCH MORE THAN JUST A BUILDING
Garcia and his wife Sauternina moved to Elko in 1894. A saddle maker from Santa Margarita, California, Garcia knew the area was in the center of the ranching and mining booms happening in northeastern Nevada, and Elko was located on the Central Pacific Railroad line, so he set up a small shop to ply his trade.
It wasn’t long before word of his exquisite craftsmanship was the talk of cowboys all over the state, and always the forward thinker, it prompted Garcia to create a mail-order catalogue in 1897. Now a sought-out national sensation, Garcia’s business expanded and he took on employees eager to learn the trade, including a young Joe Martin Capriola who apprenticed with the master from 1905-1907 (more on him shortly).
Garcia went on to win a gold medal for a saddle decorated with precious gems and intricate silverwork at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. More medals followed, and in 1907, the G.S. Garcia Harness and Saddle shop on Commercial Street in downtown Elko was built, with a store on the ground floor and a workroom for leather and silver crafters on the upper floor. Business boomed and Garcia’s reputation was well on its way to legend status.
In 1929, J.M. Capriola moved back into town from his ranch and opened his own saddle shop just a few doors from his mentor. Capriola concentrated on leather goods and sold the silver bits and spurs Garcia made. Garcia would send Capriola saddle repair jobs, while he concentrated on his intricate saddles. The two men remained friends until Garcia died in 1933. His sons kept the business alive until 1938, when the family decided to return to California.
A LONG-AWAITED DREAM
“We’d always fantasized about having a museum in the Garcia building,” Museum Director Jan Petersen says, referring to her friend Paula Wright. “It was always her dream.”
John Wright—Paula’s son—and his wife Susan are the current owners of J.M. Capriola’s, which is still in its same location J.M. opened in 1929. John’s grandparents, Paul and Betty Bear, bought Capriola’s in 1958 and in 1978, they acquired the Garcia Bits and Spur Co. and the two were reunited for good. The Bears eventually passed the business on to their daughter Paula.
Paula was tragically killed in a horse accident in 2012, but her friends and family kept that dream alive. When John was approached about the building, the time had come and a team effort brought the museum to life.
Jan is a fourth-generation Nevadan; her family came to Elko in 1869 on the Transcontinental Railroad. She was working at the California Trail Interpretive Center when John and Susan approached her about opening the museum. She had never run a museum before, but she jumped in, worked to get 501(C)(3) nonprofit status for the museum, and after that happened, she says, the ball just started rolling.
“We started putting the word out that we were looking for stuff,” Jan says. “The Western Folklife Center had photos in their collection they wanted to share, the (Northeastern Nevada) museum had stuff that was in storage they donated, and people brought items in. They shared their treasures with us.”
The museum is replete with memorabilia from G.S. Garcia: family photographs, historic images, saddles, bits, spurs, vintage bridles, belt buckles, and many other items, including the Garcia horse, which was used to show saddles in the original shop.
“We wanted to recreate the look of a saddle shop from World War I,” Jan explains. “The Northeastern Nevada Museum had the Garcia horse, so the horse went back into the stall in the front window.”
Jan notes the museum includes many items that aren’t Garcia related. A 1915 telephone is a hit with younger visitors (most kids can’t figure out how to dial it, Jan notes), as is the 1917 Edison Diamond Disc phonograph player that still works. A 1962 Capriola saddle was donated by local rancher Joe Riordan, and according to Jan, there are plans for more rotating exhibits.
“We get short-term loans (of items) and long-term loans, so we’ll be having stuff coming in and out,” she says. “We don’t want to be exclusively Garcia, but we want to highlight the heritage and the cultural history of cowboys throughout the west.”
The museum is finding its niche in Elko, settling in nicely among the other draws in the largest city in Nevada’s Cowboy Country. The Western Folklife Museum, the Northeastern Nevada Museum, J.M. Capriola’s, The Star Restaurant, and the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which happens each January, all draw visitors looking to experience that cowboy culture.
While the museum celebrates the craftsmanship of Garcia and Capriola, there is also a section that honors the legacy of NV Energy and its 75-year history in Elko. Long-term plans include a research library, an extensive photography collection, and eventually using the second floor of the building to give presentations and classes on such cowboy traditions as rope braiding and silver engraving. Anyone looking for their own bit of cowboy heritage can have a brand drawn for them at the museum, also.
The history of American buckaroos and the vaqueros that came before them is what the museum is dedicated to preserving. The ranching and cowboy lifestyles are threatened with extinction as the world moves into a more digital era and Jan believes that with the migratory nature of families today, kids are missing out on an important piece of history.
“The museum for me is about establishing those legacies. It gives kids the connection of the past to the present. Today kids often struggle with having a sense of place, and that connection of who they are. Everyone needs to have that connection,” Jan says.
“We are here, sharing these stories that are too good to be lost.”